Evolution and Transmutations of the Commedia dell’Arte Harlequin in France through the Nineteenth Century
Janet Beizer is the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard. She has worked on many aspects of French literature and culture with a focus on the nineteenth century. Her publications include Thinking through the Mothers: Reimagining Women's Biographies (Cornell University Press); Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France (Cornell University Press), and Family Plots: Balzac's Narrative Generations (Yale University Press). Her recent work explores dystopian representations of eating as related to race and class. She is finishing a book on dinner scraps that connects socioeconomic practices to aesthetic traditions, reaching back to the Commedia dell'Arte and forward to modernism.
The Harlequin Eaters is inspired by the largely forgotten nineteenth-century Parisian practice of cobbling together leftovers cleared from the dinner plates of the wealthy to sell to the poor in streets and marketplaces under the name of Arlequins (“harlequins”), a term borrowed from the scrappy Commedia dell'Arte character Arlecchino. The sparse scholarship on harlequin eating to date relegates it to the annals of socioeconomic or alimentary history, and too quickly dismisses the looming presence of the Harlequin character. Is the significance of the borrowed theater moniker limited to an analogy between patchworked costume and patchy food, as has been universally claimed? In six chapters drawing on evidence from nineteenth-century popular and canonical novels, periodicals, photographic postcards, and painting, together with theater and culinary history, the book follows the evolution of the alimentary harlequin meal from its similarly piecemeal Commedia character ancestor, and explore its anticipation of modernism's aesthetic of fragmentation, hybridity, collage, bricolage, and metamorphosis. Spinning out from the curious practice and rhetoric of harlequin eating, the study suggests a way to integrate sociocultural history with the history of aesthetics, while rethinking the imbricated place of class, race, and food in the longer history of modernism (read broadly across the “long nineteenth century,” extending roughly from 1789 to 1930).